“Dylan says to me, ‘As far as I’m concerned, Leonard, you’re number one. I’m number zero.’ Meaning, as I understood it at the time—and I was not ready to dispute it—that his work was beyond measure and my work was pretty good.” — Leonard Cohen
Few artists have achieved as much as Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. The two gifted songwriters are arguably two of the most literary lyricists of all time. Dylan is now a Nobel Prize winner for his contribution to the written word, while Leonard Cohen was a novelist and poet before he took the plunge and became a folk-pop singer. The two artists share many similarities and, equally, held a great deal of affection and admiration for each other’s work.
Bob Dylan was discovered by The New York Times critic Robert Shelton, whose review of his show would put the freewheelin’ troubadour on the map and send him on a course for stardom that he could never truly return from. For Cohen, things were a little bit different; he had already done his travelling, he’d already achieved his notoriety and his fame when he eventually sat down to write his songs. Whereas Dylan was constantly looking to the guiding star of Woody Guthrie, Cohen decided one day to be his own star.
Picking up the guitar and beginning to strum his songs in the mid-to-late sixties, Bob Dylan was already a world-famous singer by the time Cohen released Songs of Leonard Cohen to a ripple of applause. Soon enough, the world would wake up to Cohen’s talent, and he would soon be recognised as the encompassing observer and archetypal poet he is. Bob Dylan was one such fan and, during a particularly poignant piece in The New York Times, speaking with David Remnick in 2016. It’s a piece that would precede his death by only a few weeks; Dylan saw fit to pay tribute to Cohen.
“When people talk about Leonard,” begins Dylan with authority and clarity that he usually reserves for songwriting, “They fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius. Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs.” What transpires thereafter is Dylan picking out several songs that we’re suggesting are close to his favourites, or at least near the top. “As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music. Even the simplest song, like ‘The Law,’ which is structured on two fundamental chords, has counterpoint lines that are essential, and anybody who even thinks about doing this song and loves the lyrics would have to build around the counterpoint lines.”
He also pays tribute to the song ‘Sisters of Mercy’ because it “just comes in and states a fact. And after that, anything can happen, and it does, and Leonard allows it to happen.” Dylan continues to illustrate the complexity behind Cohen’s constructions, adding: “The first line begins in a minor key. The second line goes from minor to major and steps up, and changes melody and variation. The third line steps up even higher than that to a different degree, and then the fourth line comes back to the beginning. This is a deceptively unusual musical theme, with or without lyrics. But it’s so subtle a listener doesn’t realise he’s been taken on a musical journey and dropped off somewhere, with or without lyrics.”
A classic song that Dylan has actually covered during his time is ‘Hallelujah’, an epic song that will forever be remembered as one of the greats. As Dylan explains: “It’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves, and slips back, all in quick time. But this song has a connective chorus, which, when it comes in, has a power all of its own. The ‘secret chord’ and the point-blank I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself aspect of the song has plenty of resonance for me.”
While it’s always fun to pick out your favourites when the catalogue is as extensive as Cohen’s, you end up sharing your love for most of them. Dylan continues: “I like all of Leonard’s songs, early or late, ‘Going Home,’ ‘Show Me the Place,’ ‘The Darkness.’ These are all great songs, deep and truthful as ever and multidimensional, surprisingly melodic, and they make you think and feel.”
The real beauty to Leonard Cohen, according to Dylan, though, is the connection he provides his audience. Like any true poet, he not only provides the narrative but the subtext too. Dylan notes: “I see no disenchantment in Leonard’s lyrics at all. There’s always a direct sentiment as if he’s holding a conversation and telling you something, him doing all the talking, but the listener keeps listening.”
Judging by the comments, we’re pretty sure that Bob Dylan could fill an entire room with his favourite Leonard Cohen songs, and that’s only if he didn’t select every single one of them. But, concluding by his effusing above, we’ve got the songs Bob Dylan holds dearest—his six favourite Leonard Cohen songs.
Bob Dylan’s favourite Leonard Cohen songs:
- ‘The Law’
- ‘Sisters of Mercy’
- ‘Going Home’
- ‘Show Me The Place’
- ‘The Darkness’